7 Art Therapy Myths Busted
Even though art therapy has been an established profession since the 1940s, and the arts have been used for healing and health for the majority of our existance, it’s still not as widely understood as talk therapy. I’d like to debunk some common misconceptions about who can benefit from art therapy and what they can expect.
Myth #1: Art therapy is only for kids.
Art therapy is a powerful form of therapy that combines both visual and verbal tools to help people of any age attain greater mental and physical health and wellbeing. It’s a way of engaging the imagination and sensory centers of the brain in problem solving. No special experience or artistic talent is needed; all you need is your imagination and your ability to choose and respond to line, shape, and color. Even people with visual impairments can benefit from art therapy, as outlined by these amazing folks here. Using artistic media to “visualize” issues and translate your feelings into images can help you see things from a new, bird’s eye perspective. Having done this, you can alter the image, and then think about how to alter your reality.
Myth #2: Art therapy is for people who are developmentally disabled, severely mentally ill, or brain injured and can’t express themselves verbally.
Art therapists have special skills and training in using visual media in counseling, which can be very helpful when working with people whose ability to communicate verbally is compromised. Don’t mistake art therapy for a non-verbal approach, however. While there might be times when less talking is necessary, especially with lower-functioning populations, verbal processing is a very important part of the work in art therapy. Most of the work that I do includes a lot of verbal processing: talking through feelings and seeking solutions together based on the art. I’ll talk more about this in #7.
Myth #3: I can’t draw, I won’t be any good at art therapy.
This is a commonly held misconception. People often think that they need to create visually “accurate” depictions of situations or make “beautiful” art. While some people may use art therapy this way, most art therapy clients may not have done art in years, or even decades. In art therapy, there is almost never a “right” or “wrong” way to create. It doesn’t have to be pretty, and in fact, the more you can let that go, the faster we usually make progress. The art therapist is there to guide you through using visual material to express your feelings, get things off your chest, and look at your situation and problem solve in a new way. Sometimes you will find your images visually pleasing, and transforming pain into beauty is very empowering, but that’s not a prerequisite for art therapy to succeed.
One beginning exercise that I like to use with people who are feeling intimidated by the art is magazine photo collage. I describe this process in detail in this post. Art therapists are very aware of how anxiety producing “making art” can be when you haven’t in years. They will let you know that there is no right or wrong; it’s really just a way to engage different parts of your brain in problem solving.
Myth #4: Art therapy is too “woo-woo” for me.
Um, no. Actually, that’s not my car. I’m not going to ask you to “hug it out,” or get in touch with your aura.
Myth #5: An art therapist will look at my art and see things I don’t want to reveal.
While art can give us some clues about what you are thinking and feeling, only the artist can ultimately say what its meaning is. An art therapist might help you to ponder different possibilities, or turn your page around to see it from a new angle, but as in talk therapy, you remain the expert on you. Our job is to be a respectful, supportive facilitator of the changes you want to make. Looking at your art, I can’t tell who you are dating, what mistakes you have made in your life, or what you ate for breakfast.
Myth #6: Art therapists are not “real therapists.”
I have a master’s degree. I am licensed as a mental health counselor in MA, and am also a board certified, registered art therapist. Not all art therapists hold counseling licenses, but all art therapists have master’s level training, just like social workers and mental health counselors. There are numerous art therapy training programs in the US and abroad. For information on how to become an art therapist, click here.
Myth #7: An art therapist won’t be able to talk through my problems with me.
As I mentioned in #2, verbal processing is a very important part of art therapy. During our training as art therapists, we learn to generate art therapy exercises tailored to each client. The art therapist focuses both on the client’s process of making art, as well as the product. The art therapist will talk through all of this information with the client. Click to learn more about a typical first art therapy session.
Finally, do not assume that an art therapist never engages in talk therapy. If you find that you have a good match with an art therapist, but feel less pulled to the art, talk to him or her about how you might structure the work in a way that meets your needs. I have some clients who use art every week, others who use it some sessions and not others, and a few who never or only occasionally use art. The goal in art therapy is to tune into you and what will best help you meet your goals.
For more art therapy myths busted, you can also hop over to art therapist, Sara Roizen’s blog, Art Therapy Spot, to see her Top 10 Art Therapy Myths.
Still have questions or doubts about art therapy? Have I missed any myths that you want to address? Please share about it in the comments.
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I love your illustrations for each point.
Welcome to the Maricle Counseling blog! Thanks so much for stopping in. I took a peek at your website and I just loved many of the images and quotes that you included, especially the Emily Dickenson quote about hope. So beautiful. Thank you for that. It is tricky trying to explain what we do – I always say it’s a bit like chocolate – you have to taste it to really know it. You have some lovely explanations on your website as well, thanks for sharing.
All the Best to You,
Thanks for this post Amy. I hope someone on the fence reads this and gives art therapy a try. I’ve had several of these thoughts, but thanks to you and other friends who are art therapists, I have given art therapy a try to wonderful, amusing, insightful results. Thank you for doing what you do!
It’s amazing what we can “see” when it’s in 2D or 3D in front of us instead of inside of us, isn’t it? I feel like the distance you gain from your issues is one of the most important advantages in art therapy.
Thanks for all YOU do to help us breathe and slow down.
This is a great post Amy! As I was reading I found that I tend to believe some of these myths myself, particularly #3 … my artistic skills are almost non-existent. A blank piece of paper and some crayons or markers can be very intimidating. Making a collage seems much more approachable 🙂 Thank you for debunking some misconceptions about Art Therapy!
Thank you so much for your comment. I am comfortable with art, but I always remind myself how uncomfortable I feel with math, for instance, and try to remember that’s how some people feel about art. Your comment is interesting because as an art therapist, when someone says that their art skills are almost “non-existent,” I know they will find a medium that helps them unload, explore their feelings, and see things in a new way. When someone walks in the door, I hold these dual truths: the client is intimidated about making art because they believe that they need “special talent,” and I know they will surprise themselves with what they create. It’s often a process of breaking things down into manageable pieces, like with the collage.
Art therapy is also a fabulous way to practice safe risk taking. It’s scary and intimidating for some people, but it’s a safe way to practice overcoming challenges and proving to yourself that you can do it. It’s also great for practicing not being “good” at something. Who said that you should only engage in something if you are good at it? Sometimes an activity is about the doing, not the outcome, and sometimes when you let the outcome go, it turns out far better than expected. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?
All the Best,
Hey there – I realise this is an old post but I just wanted to say I enjoyed reading it. It shows that art therapy isn’t “hippy-dippy” and actually requires alot of brains – and I like the fact that you can do something practical such as helping other people with your skill.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read and learn more about art therapy. I’m really glad that the post spoke to you. There’s really a lot of interest in art therapy and art as self-care at the moment, so I’m psyched that yet another person is aware and can spread the word about art therapy and how it works. If you haven’t seen it already, you might also enjoy this post, What Is An Art Therapy Session Like? or this podcast where I talk about how art therapy works. I’d love to hear if there are other questions you’d like answered in a future post too.
Cheers and thanks again for reading and your comment.
Thanks for posting this! I couldn’t agree more with what you have here. But… there is one other myth I’d like to address : art therapists are all white women. It’s true that the majority of us are (I am) but I was lucky enough to volunteer at the Expressive Therapies Summit a couple of years ago and meet an artist from Little Rock who was an African American man working in a mental health facility. He and I had a terrific conversation about the power of expressive arts in communities of color.
So I wonder if it might be helpful to include a “Myth no. 8” and include more images of people of color among the many beautiful illustrations on your site?I checked out the rest of the site, and found one such image of a woman de-stressing … if I missed others, I apologize.
Again, thanks for posting this and thanks for the opportunity to give some feed back.
Welcome to Mindful Art Studio! I’m so pleased that you stopped by and took the time to comment as well. Also, I LOVE the expressive therapies summit! I’m headed there again this year, with any luck to teach on helping therapists prevent burnout through art journaling, will I see you there?
I so appreciate you raising awareness about the fact that art and expressive therapy is for ALL of us. Myth #8 fits in perfectly. This is exactly the sort of thing I want people in this community to feel free to do, add in what I have missed.
There are a few other images of non-white folks around here, but it’s true that since I am usually speaking to the folks that I happen to serve in my local (predominantly white) community, I have predominantly included white folks. At this point though, I have separated my therapy practice site from this blog, (this is my art as healing site) and I am excited to have the opportunity to diversify my images more and demonstrate that we all can use the arts for healing.
Thank you again for raising this important issue.
Thanks for the prompt and thoughtful reply!
I hope to make it to the summit this year… depends on the work schedule 😉
I’ll be sure to check back in to this site often as I start my group for survivors of domestic violence.
All the best,
Feel free to sign up for the mailing list if you want to be sure to get the latest blog posts and updates. Sounds like you are doing great work. Hopefully we run into each other at the conference.
Your article was great! But as the leader of a Healing Arts program for a hospice I’d like to point out the “hugging it out” or “getting in touch with your aura” are not woo-woo ideas. Touch and energy are not far out concepts. In our organization they are valued and valuable ways to connect with our patients. In fact, I would argue that art therapy allows the patient to energetically connect with their feelings in a way that traditional medicine does not, a lot like hugging and becoming aware of your energy through mindful meditation. Aura is a buzz word that scares people off, without a doubt, but in my mind that is simply a product of misunderstanding and miseducation. Thanks for your time!
HI Terri: It sounds like you are doing wonderful work. Thanks so much for being here! XO Amy
Hi, I really liked your article and was wondering if i could print it out to use as a resource for my research paper on art therapy. I will, of course, credit you
HI Kira: I’m so happy I could be a resource. Of course you can use the information and credit me. Thanks so much! Amy